Germany is home to tens of thousands of US troops and the largest number of US bases in the world outside of America. We speak with US activist Elsa Rassbach. She moved to Berlin, where she is part of the American Voices Abroad Military Project. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Berlin, actually from East Berlin, here in Germany, as Democracy Now! goes on the road and wraps up our European trip. We’re joined on the telephone from another part of Germany by Andre Shepherd. He could be the first US soldier to apply for political asylum here in Germany, refusing to return to Iraq. He’s gone underground. He’s gone AWOL.
We’re also joined here in Berlin by Elsa Rassbach. She is a US citizen and activist who’s lived in Germany for the past eighteen years. She’s a member of American Voices Abroad Military Project and of the German affiliate of the War Resisters’ International.
Before we go to Elsa, I wanted to go back to Andre and ask — so, you came back here to Germany. Where were you? And what does it mean to go AWOL? What did you do? You left the base?
ANDRE SHEPHERD: Yes, that is correct. I left the military base in Katterbach in April 2007 and never returned. This is AWOL. It’s slightly different than desertions, because with AWOL you always have the intent to return, you know, back to your post after a certain amount of time, and with desertion, that means you permanently quit the military. And as of right now, I’m still currently considered as AWOL, but, you know, given the circumstances [inaudible], I’m quite sure that that status has changed to desertion.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did you actually apply? Have you applied in any way to the US government?
ANDRE SHEPHERD: For AWOL or for...?
AMY GOODMAN: No, to apply for asylum in Germany.
ANDRE SHEPHERD: Oh, OK, OK. Now I understand. OK, well, basically what you had to do was go through the reception center, which I went to in Giessen a few weeks ago, and formally declare myself as an asylum seeker. And then, you know, they take care of the paperwork and everything. And then you are designated as an asylum seeker, upon which you are enjoyed limited rights, you know, for living in Germany until such time as the hearing comes and they make a decision on whether or not they will grant you full rights to asylum.
AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t you apply, Andre Shepherd, for conscientious objector status?
ANDRE SHEPHERD: It’s for several reasons, but the main overall reason is because in the US, conscientious objector only pertains to individuals that are against every single war of every form. It doesn’t matter if it’s offensive, defensive, limited action. It doesn’t matter. The problem is, for me to actually go and apply for conscientious objection, I would actually have had to lie, because my belief is that the armed forces are there for defense of the nation, like let’s say an example like someone decides to invade California, you know, and the military is called up to go and repel whatever forces invaded the land. Of course I would take up arms and go and defend my land, because they breached our borders. This is OK. But as soon as I would use that as an argument in my conscientious objector application, it would be automatically rejected, because it goes against the first tenet of the rules of objection.
The second thing on there is that you have to, you know, live the lifestyle. From what I’m reading, you know, in AR600-43, you have to live the lifestyle that supports your beliefs. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how that would work, because the way it’s written, I’m assuming that even if you, like, do things like, you know, play videogames or watch war movies, you know, anything that advocates war, that wouldn’t support your lifestyle, you know, of your beliefs. And it’s up to the soldier to prove that these beliefs are sincere. So it’s like next to impossible.
The other and most compelling reason is the case of Augustin Aguayo. At the same time that my unit was scheduled for the second deployment, Augustin Aguayo’s case was big in the media, particularly in the Stars and Stripes magazine. This guy was the most pacifist soldier I have ever seen, you know, and he applied for conscientious objector status. I mean, the guy had never even loaded his weapon in a war zone. And the way the military treated him and, you know, summarily rejected his application and saying that he wasn’t sincere about his beliefs and everything, and they wanted to put him in handcuffs to send him back to Iraq. And he ended up, you know, serving time, because he finally went AWOL, because normal channels of conscientious objection were closed to him, and there’s like no other alternative to not going to combat duty. So this told me right away that this was not the way to go in terms of solving this problem, because I knew that, one, the CO would be rejected, and two, that it would cause too many problems, not for myself, but also for the unit, as well, especially if word got out that this was going on.
AMY GOODMAN: We will link on our website, democracynow.org, to our interviews with Augustin Aguayo, who joined us right before he turned himself in in the US military in Los Angeles and then went back to Germany — well, had been back in Germany, where he had gone AWOL and ultimately was freed, after being imprisoned. And we’ve talked to him extensively about his reasons for applying for CO status.
I wanted to turn from Andre Shepherd, who — I hope you’ll stay on the line with us — to Elsa Rassbach, who has been here in Germany for some eighteen years, moved from the United States. Elsa, can you give us the lay of the land? You’ve been a longtime antiwar activist here in Germany, Germany having more US military bases outside the United States than any place in the world.
ELSA RASSBACH: Yes. Actually, I’ve been here in two stints. One was during the Vietnam War, and one has been since 1996. And in the Vietnam War, when there were a lot of GI newspapers in Europe and Germany and many soldiers deserting to Sweden and so forth, the German peace movement was critical in that effort reaching soldiers.
And now what has happened is that, you know, Germany is still occupied, really, more than sixty years. Germans are very grateful for the liberation of Germany by the US, but on the whole, the majority do not approve of how the US are using the bases here for these wars. And there are more bases here than any other country outside the US. There’s 68,000 soldiers stationed here. The US is consolidating in Europe to sort of six mega-bases. Five of them are to be in Germany, and one is in Vicenza. Ansbach area, where Andre was stationed, is supposed to be one of them, is supposed to be the big fighter-helicopter base. In addition to that, there are two Central Commands in Germany. Germany is the only country with the Central Commands, you know, reporting directly to the Pentagon, like we know CENTCOM is in the US, and so forth, but the EUCOM, which covers all of Europe, Soviet Union, Turkey, that’s in Stuttgart, used to include Africa, but now they’ve created AFRICOM. That’s also in Stuttgart.
AMY GOODMAN: Because no African country would accept them.
ELSA RASSBACH: Exactly. But why — and the Germans — you know, it’s a difficult situation for them. They do not want to be ungrateful. They also are — but they have — for years now, there has been a strong opposition building also to the use of the bases here. You haven’t seen demonstrations like you have in Vicenza, where they were trying to enlarge that base in a middle-class area. You do see in Ansbach, where Andre was, one of the liveliest movements also against the base there, because US wanted to expand that base, and they had a petition in which they said — it was sent throughout Germany — that German soil should not be used for aggressive war. And many Germans feel that that should apply to the US also.
AMY GOODMAN: We went to Ireland and to Britain and learned — met the Shannon antiwar activists, because most soldiers went through Shannon airport before going to Iraq. But that’s changed?
ELSA RASSBACH: Well, yes. I understand there’s still some going there, but I believe, partly as a result of protest in Ireland, they shifted that. That’s mainly going through a commercial airport in Germany, in Leipzig, in the former East Germany. And that also is becoming the focus, the Leipzig airport, of activity here in Germany. And there are activists who go and watch how many soldiers go off through there.
But in addition to the soldiers routed through Germany to Iraq and Afghanistan via Ramstein Air Base or Leipzig or also the commercial airport Hahn near Frankfurt, there are soldiers, you know, as you know, permanently based here. It’s considered their home, within US military law. In Schweinfurt, for example, where Augustin was, that was considered his permanent base. They have had the — Schweinfurt had the largest death rate of any soldiers. They have — also, they’re creating — all of these bases create environmental damage in the German community. The Germans are paying also for a portion of the costs of the bases. And the citizens’ action against the expansion of the Ansbach base, where Andre was —-
AMY GOODMAN: Explain where that is in Germany for viewers and listeners who don’t know.
ELSA RASSBACH: OK. That is in Bavaria. It’s about -— it’s a bit north of Nuremberg. And one of the things they’ve done, actually, is they’ve made these huge bases in very outlying areas. I don’t know if it’s deliberate. It’s harder for activists to get to them. Grafenwohr is the biggest training base. It’s about an hour and a half from Ansbach also, and it has, you know, less — you know, just about a thousand Germans in the area.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Nuremberg, the German constitution says Germany cannot engage in any offensive war.
ELSA RASSBACH: It doesn’t just say Germany. It says there shall be no preparation of aggressive war from German soil. And there have been several citizen petitions also with related to Ramstein Air Base, that it doesn’t say that only the Germans may not do it. It says there shall be no preparation of aggressive war from German soil.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you travel to US bases?
ELSA RASSBACH: Oh, yes. I go to US bases often, and we have a whole — both the American Voices Military Project and also the War Resisters’ International, and in Germany we have the networks of people near all the bases, and there’s also other anti-base networks. We’re all working together on this.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you do there?
ELSA RASSBACH: Well, among other things, we are organizing — and we’ve had for some time — that information be distributed to soldiers. We have these GI Rights Hotline cards. They’re just the same, really, as they are in the States. They have a hotline phone number on here, where soldiers can get information. This is the number here. I don’t know if you can see it. But this is — anyway, but many people in the States will have seen — oh, excuse me. Many people in the States will have seen these cards. Here we have also links to different organizations, like Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out. But basically, most people, if they would call the US, they would also be routed to Military Counseling Network in Germany, which is the Mennonite counseling organization that is part of the GI Rights Hotline Network. And so, that’s one thing we do, among other things.
We do demonstrations in front. We’ve invited Iraq veterans right to Ansbach in May. There were four US Iraq Veterans Against the War who did a week-long campaign there, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Coming up is the sixtieth anniversary of NATO, and I know there are major antiwar plans. Barack Obama will then be the official president. I expect that he would be going there. Where is all this taking place?
ELSA RASSBACH: Yes, this is taking place on the border between France and Germany, in Strasbourg on the French side and Kehl on the German side, and the whole province of Baden-Baden. And Strasbourg is where the European Parliament is. In fact, Strasbourg is where we even had a resolution for asylum in 2006 heard by — the Green and the left parties helped organize that. We were involved, and all of the organizations we’ve mentioned here were involved in that.
And there is a plan — this is the whole focus, really, of the German peace movement, to a large extent, as far as they know, to the European peace movement this spring, which is to say that no — the slogan is “no war, no NATO.” There is no reason for NATO to continue. NATO was an alliance against the Soviet bloc and the Warsaw Pact. It’s in the NATO statutes that they are — NATO is only defensive. It’s not supposed to be going elsewhere. And since the end of the Cold War, it has been used now to justify the Afghanistan war, the aggressive stance, the missile defense shield in East Europe and the kind of aggressiveness developing to the Soviet Union — or the former Soviet Union, to Russia and so forth. And it’s also used to justify — it’s the only justification why Germany allows these bases to be used for the Iraq war. Germany didn’t agree with the Iraq war. It’s because of the NATO alliance. So this is being challenged now.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Andre Shepherd.
ELSA RASSBACH: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: Andre, how much contact did you have with the antiwar movement, both German and US? Is this a support to you now? Were you able to get access to their information? Or, as you said, did most of your information come from your own research on US military bases in Germany?
ANDRE SHEPHERD: Well, I got into extensive contact with the antiwar movement through the Military Counseling Network, who I’ve been in contact with for the last year and half, actually the entire time I’ve been AWOL. As of right now, I am a proud member of Iraq Veterans Against the War for the last month or so. I have connections with — you know, connections with Connection e.V. I’ve spoken with Courage to Resist. And there’s a whole myriad of other peace organizations, like the Tübingen Progressive Americans for Peace and, you know, many others such as that. So there’s a really huge support network that we’re working together with to try to —
AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid of being picked up, as Augustin Aguayo was? Now, of course, he was on a US military base in Germany, but ultimately, well, you know, picked up by US military when he was first taken. Then he went AWOL. Are you concerned about this?
ANDRE SHEPHERD: As of right now, there’s a little bit of concern, but I am hoping that the Americans will respect the Geneva Conventions and will not, you know, create a possible international incident by trying to pick me up and bring them under their jurisdiction while this process is ongoing.
AMY GOODMAN: And the next step in your application process for asylum here in Germany?
ANDRE SHEPHERD: Currently, I am waiting for a hearing so I can argue my case with my lawyer, Dr. Reinhard Marx. And we will present our case in the most comprehensive fashion that we can. And then we will see what the initial decision will be.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Andre Shepherd, speaking out for the first time internationally about his application for political asylum here in Germany. And thank you to Elsa Rassbach. Your website, if people want to get in touch with it.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being with us. The US Senate has come out with a report on the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Next segment, we’ll be joined by a German attorney who’s sued Donald Rumsfeld for torture.